• Stephen Strum

Building a 3.5' x 5.5' N Scale Layout Part 4: Adding trees, water features, and final details

The 3.5' by 5.5' N scale layout is finally done! Here is the 4th and final part of the construction of this layout.



Ok, so when we left things off at the end of Part 3, I had finished building the base scenery, had the structures and lighting installed, and had put down a base layer of dirt and ground foam on most of the layout.


While the layout looked close to completion, there were still a lot of details to work on, as well as getting all the trees made and installed and the water features done.


Anyway, the first major task at this point in the construction was building and installing trees. I used super-tree material, which is generically called seafoam, for the tree armatures.


I stuck a bunch of these in a piece of foam and sprayed them with camo brown spray paint along with a dusting of gray primer. I came back the next day and worked on adding the foliage. I made up a mix of diluted matte medium in a cup, and then let a few pieces of the super supertree material soak for a bit in the glue mix. After their brief anti-aging bath, I would take each piece out and sprinkle them with various shades of ground foam. Since I was going for a fall theme, I used shades of red, orange, and yellow, but also mixed in some green and brown. I tried to use the brighter colors more sparingly. Your dull reds and burnt orange colors are going to look more realistic than bright red and bright orange for most of your trees. A few splashes of brighter color are ok, but most trees do not have leaf colors as vibrant as the bright ground foams, or if they do, they don't for very long, and all trees won't be at peak color at the same time. So, try to keep things subdued for a better outcome.



Once I had all the trees on my sheet of foam done, I sprayed them with more diluted matte medium, and then once that was dry hit most of them with a flat clear coat to further help secure the foliage.



With the first set of trees done it was time to start installing them. I simply poked holes in the scenery with a small screwdriver that was about the size of the tree trunks, added some glue, and placed each tree in one of the holes. Then I repeated that for all the remaining trees. That first set of trees didn't go very far, so I made three more sets of trees and installed those as well.



I still needed a lot more trees, but after more than a week of making and installing trees, I wanted to move on to something else for a while. So, I decided to install some power poles and power lines next.



To do that, I picked up the Woodland Scenics Utility system to try out on the layout. This system includes sets of poles that have wires which are basically a thread-like material, already strung through the poles. The poles have little holes through the cross arms where the wires pass through so they don't look as realistic up close, but with N scale, unless you have sharp eyes, you can't tell the difference from more than a couple feet away.



They also have a transformer connect set which includes transforms you can connect to the main poles, and then some additional poles with single wires to use to run to structures, and some conduit to place on structures where the wires would enter. So, you can completely wire your layout with these kits, and they also offer a power sub-station you can include on the layout as well.


These kits are easy to install and I just poked holes in the scenery where I wanted each pole and glued them in place. I used four of the power pole kits, and two of the transformer connect sets on the layout.



Overall, I like the system a lot, however, I learned a couple of things. I thought it would be useful to glue the power lines onto each cross arm instead of letting them pass through freely so you wouldn't rip a line out as easily. But, that caused some tension issues in the wires where some have more slack than others. The lines don't have much elasticity to them, unlike the ezine stuff you can buy which is very stretchy. So, they may not stand up to as much abuse, but they do seem pretty durable, so time will tell.




Next up it was time to start working on the backdrop. While I planned to install a photo backdrop, I wanted something in between that and the layout. Part of the reason was simply so if the backdrop wasn't being used, there would still be something there, which also serves to help protect trains from falling off the back of the layout. So, I cut a thin piece of birch plywood to length and then just cut a wavy top to it.




After a test fit and sanding, I painted the layout-facing side with brown paint. While the paint was still wet I sprinkled on the same dirt and ground foams I used on the layout itself onto the backdrop board. Once I had all the ground foams in place I soaked them all with diluted matte medium. Since the wood was already warping, I used my ever-versatile 1-2-3 blocks to help flatten it out while everything dried.


I secured the backdrop board to the back of the layout mainly with glue, using tape to help hold it against the foam of the layout, and a 1x2 board clamped to the bottom of the layout which was pushed tight against the backdrop board. This effectively worked as a five-foot-long clamp to hold the backdrop board against the layout. I then cut out another piece of birch plywood to place on the short side of the layout where the mountain is located to add a lot more strength and durability, plus to provide a nicer overall look.




I also wanted to cover the wiring on the bottom of the layout. While not necessarily needed, I did have to ship the layout and so having the bottom covered would make it far more likely for the wiring to survive transport.



I cut a sheet of 1/8" birch plywood to fit the bottom of the layout. I cut out the corners for the legs and put a big notch on one end where the power strip is located that everything plugs into. I have lots of mounting blocks and other wood on the bottom of the layout that I could screw into, but I obviously didn't want to drive a screw through any wiring. So, what I did was to put a thick dab of black paint on the underside of the layout everywhere that I planned on putting in a screw to hold on the bottom cover.


(dots show locations I wanted to put screws to hold on the layout bottom cover)



Then I lifted the bottom panel in place and pushed it up as tight as I could. Once I removed the panel, I had black paint in all the locations where I planned to put screws. But, since the black paint was on the inside, I had to drill holes through the middle of all those black dots so I would know where to put the screws in once the cover was in place.



Then it was a matter of laying on my back and supporting the wood with my feet and hands while trying to drive some screws in. This was a bit tricky, but once I had a few screws in things progressed quite easily.



So, now the layout had a nice bottom cover and looks a lot nicer from all angles.



One small project I tackled was adding a bit of advertising on the layout. I picked up a Miller Engineering sign kit that I installed on the layout. All I basically had to do was drill a hole through the layout to pass the wires, attach the sign to a thin piece of wood for durability, and then make up a sign that I printed out on some 20-year-old transparency film that I then attached to the sign kit with double-sided tape. It looks pretty good and the kit is easy to use. The controller board and batteries that power the sign or located on the side of the layout under the mountain.



At this point, I shifted back to working on more trees. I was pretty tired of making trees and so I cheated from this point onward and picked up a variety of ready-to-use scenery material including a half dozen boxes of Woodland Scenics Fine Leaf Foliage. This is just supertree or seafoam material that is already painted and flocked for you and ready to use. You of course pay a hefty price premium, but saving time was more important to me at this point in the project.



The Fine Leaf Foliage is hit and miss in terms of what you get inside each container. In this box, all the material looked like ready-to-use trees. But in half of the boxes, the material wasn't quite as tree-like overall and so I only managed a few usable trees per box, with the rest being more shrub material.



Anyway, the Fine Leaf Foliage packages allowed me to add dozens of extra trees really quickly and in some colors that were a little different from what I already had on the layout.



Once I was basically done adding trees to the layout I stained the sides and back of the layout a cherry color to match the layout frame.


Next, it was time to get the photo backdrop prepared. I unrolled the backdrop on some birch plywood to try and figure out how I wanted to do everything. Since the lower third of the backdrop board isn't visible as it is against the layout frame, I didn't need to cover that portion of the backdrop board.


I then glued and clamped together a couple of layers of 1/8" birch plywood, with one layer set up such that it would rest on the back edge of the layout frame. I then put a strip of wood along the bottom edge so when the backdrop was in place along the back of the layout it wouldn't be able to lift up easily.


I then stained and polyurethaned the backdrop, the wood additions on the sides of the layout, as well as some trim pieces I wanted to put around the printed backdrop.


Since I was worried that the backdrop would eventually curl around the edges the trim pieces around the backdrop will prevent that from ever happening.



I laid out the printed backdrop where I wanted it, made sure the wood was clean and smooth, and then started applying it. I pulled back the covering on the adhesive back on one side, got that end stuck down, and then worked my way down the backdrop, making sure I got all the air bubbles out. Then I glued on the trim pieces, using some weights to hold them in place while they dried.



To install the backdrop on the back of the layout, I just rest it on the layout frame and then secure it with a couple of bent nails. I later installed some slightly nicer L-shaped hooks, but the bent nails actually worked a little better.



I also made and installed a little door to cover the access hole in the side of the mountain in order to better finish off that side of the layout.



The last major step was to work on the water features. There is a small pond on one end of the layout and I did that water feature first. I mixed up two-part Enviro-tex epoxy and added just a hint of blue color to the mix. I then poured that on the layout and used a small torch to remove the air bubbles before it cured.




The main water feature was up next and started out with the waterfalls. I mixed up more two-part epoxy and used the cotton ball technique once again. I soak stretched-out cotton balls in the Envirotex and then apply them where the waterfalls are located. The cotton keeps most of the epoxy from running down and can be sculpted to some extent so you can get the shape you want.



I did the small waterfall first, then the rapids above the big waterfall, and then finally the main waterfall. This is a little tricky since the epoxy-soaked cotton wants to stick to everything you try to use to place it on the layout so you have to be careful not to make a big mess of things. But, I gradually built up one layer to the waterfall. I poured the resin I had left over at the top of the upper stream, and let it run down towards and over the waterfall, filling in all the low areas.



I mixed up another batch of the Enviro-tex epoxy so I could add on to the waterfall and then poured what I had left over into the lake area.


I then let that dry overnight and then I came back the next day and added a second layer of the epoxy-soaked cotton to the waterfall to help fill it out. I also poured in the second layer of epoxy in the main lake area since that was going to need a few layers in order to get to the depth I needed. Since this layer ended up being pretty thin, I decided to mix up another batch of epoxy to add to the lake depth.



Since things were going well, I decided to try and wreck everything by adding way too much of the blue dye to the epoxy mix. For some reason, I thought it would become more transparent when mixed in with the existing epoxy in a thin layer and look more like blue sky reflecting off the water, but it really didn't.


It actually doesn't look that bad in pictures and video, but in person, I couldn't stand the look of it and so I had to try and fix it.


So, a couple of days later I took a couple of shades of darker Vallejo acrylic model paint and mixed those into another batch of Enviro-tex. The Vallejo paint works really well as a way to dye the Enviro-tex epoxy. I poured a thin layer of that new darker shade on top of the existing cured epoxy resin and I think it came out reasonably good. I was going for a blend of some New England river photos I found online like these here and tried to get something in the ballpark of those photos.



Finally, I touched up the waterfalls a bit with some Woodland Scenics Water Effects and the lake and river with Water Ripples and dry brushed on some white paint to highlight waterfalls.



I thought it would be fun to add some canoes to the river and so I added a pair of Woodland Scenics ones. I glued them in place under the bridges so you would only see them from certain angles and it would be a nice little surprise that you would find as you looked around the layout.



The layout was still lacking people, and so I worked on adding some benches and people around the train station and then around the town in general, along with a few animals.




Next, I added some road striping to the bridge using a Woodland Scenics road striping pen. I didn't add striping anywhere else since I didn't think I could effectively add the road markings without making a mess of things given everything that was already in place. While there are road markings and other items missing from the layout, I generally feel it is better to leave something off than to add it and have it look bad since mistakes are far more noticeable than something that is missing, especially in N scale.




I continued to add more people and random details around the layout, including a couple of road signs, and glued down all the vehicles.


The hotel needed some potted trees, so I added those, as well as a few more trees around the layout since I still had some Fine Leaf Foliage material left over.



Finally, I wanted to make a small construction scene somewhere on the layout. I had a nice N scale excavator and decided to paint some tubing a gray concrete color, get a couple of figures with shovels and make a little scene where they were working on a drain line of some type. I piled up the same dirt I used elsewhere on the layout around the scene and then soaked everything thoroughly with diluted matte medium. I like the scene a lot and think it came out pretty good.



And after that, I decided the layout was good enough to call complete. Plus, I really wanted to get the layout delivered to the client and that side of the garage available for our second vehicle before any significant winter weather set in.


To aid in delivery I built a box to help protect the layout during shipment, which can easily be removed by the client during setup as I show here.



Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the journey with me this year as I built this 3.5' x 5.5' N scale layout. This is a great layout for watching a couple of trains run and has a 12.75" minimum radius which is enough for most rolling stock to navigate. While there isn't a lot of switching operations, there are a couple of industries to switch along with an interchange or staging track that could also allow for future expansion sometime down the road.


The layouts I'll be building in 2022 will all be much smaller, which will hopefully allow me to complete a few of them.


So, be sure to check out this website and my YouTube channel for these new projects in the coming year. Also, if you want to help support this channel above and beyond just watching the videos, maybe consider buying me a cup of coffee.




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